William Merritt Chase was an outstanding artist associated with the Impressionist movement, who became one of the most distinguished American artists and teachers of his time. Chase was part of a group of several American artists who received their artistic training in Europe, absorbing both traditional and modern cultural references. Consequently, Chase executed more traditional artworks, with his portraits and still-lifes, albeit exploring his Impressionist style with landscapes and domestic scenes. The artist was more fluent in pastels and oil painting, but he also produced etchings and watercolor paintings.
William Merritt Chase was born in the state of Indiana in the year 1849. Son of a local businessman, he was employed as a salesman in the family business. Showing an early interest in art, Chase took classes under artists like Barton S. Hays and Jacob Cox, a self-taught local artist.
Chase was convinced by his teachers, after a brief time in the Navy, to further his artistic studies in New York, which he arrived at in 1869. For a short time, he initially studied with Joseph Oriel Eaton and then migrated to the National Academy of Design under Lemuel Wilmarth. His professor was once a pupil of the distinguished French painter Jean-Leon Gérôme, who became much appreciated in the United States.
Soon after, in 1870, Chase had to leave New York for St. Louis, Missouri, where his family was once based. There, he worked and helped his family with their declining fortune. Despite that, Chase became active in the St. Louis' art community, even winning prizes in local exhibitions. By 1871, the young artist exhibited for the first time at the National Academy. Soon, Chase's artworks drew the attention of wealthy St. Louis collectors. For two years, said collectors arranged a trip to Europe in exchange for European art, as well as Chase's paintings for their collection.
Having fewer distractions than in Paris, Chase settled in Munich, at the Academy of Fine Arts, a training center that attracted several aspiring American artists. There, Alexander von Wagner and Karl von Piloty became his teachings. He also befriended great artists like Frank Duveneck, Walter Shirlaw, and J. Frank Currier.
Although he was enrolled at the Academy, Chase was more interested in the dramatic chiaroscuro and flashy brushwork employed by Wilhelm Leibl, a close friend of Gustave Courbet. Chase also admired the artworks of old Dutch masters such as Frans Hals and Peter Paul Rubens and their painterly realism.
Like many of his contemporaries in America, Chase developed his style, absorbing elements of several art styles and movements, both contemporaries and of yore. Using a loosely brushed style, popular with his instructors, Chase was mostly a figurative painter. One of these paintings, entitled Keying Up – The Court Jester, was responsible for the beginning of his fame, winning him a medal at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.
By 1877, Chase, alongside Duveneck and the distinguished American painter John Henry Twachtman, visited Venice before returning to the United States in the following year, representing a fresh new wave of European-educated American artists. Back in America, Chase exhibited his Ready for the Ride with the recently formed Society of American Artists.
The American artist also opened a studio in the famous Tenth Street Studio Building in New York City. The construction was the first building of the United States, and perhaps, the world. It was specially erected for harboring artists, attesting to the increasing importance of art in the country.
By the early 1880s, Chase made several visits to Europe in order to develop his artistic networking and update his knowledge of the European contemporary artistic production. In 1881, Chase met Alfred Stevens, a Belgian painter whose artwork was already admired him, and who worked with a fashionable blend between portraiture and genre painting. Stevens advised Chase not to try to emulate the style of the Old Masters. In response, Chase began to modernize his paintings.
Other distinguished contemporary artists, especially Edouard Manet, inspired Chase to update his art production, both in style and subjects. This fresher style is especially perceptible in his series of New York park scenes executed between 1886 and 1890.
The artworks of the distinguished American artist James Abbott McNeil Whistler, whom he met in 1885, may also have influence Chase's park scenes. On the occasion of their acquaintance, Chase suggested that both artists create a portrait of one another. Although Chase's portrait was surely meant to be a homage to his compatriot, Whistler was not amused. Whistler regarded Chase's painting as a monstrous lampoon and even destroying his portrayal of Chase.
As opposed to his still-lifes and portraits, which were more traditionally executed, Chase expressed his Impressionist's view through his landscapes and endearing scenes of domestic life. A beautiful example of one said production is At the Seaside, executed in 1892. In this beautiful composition, he depicted groups of women in a time of leisure with their children at the beach. The artwork was executed with loose, painterly brushstrokes and vibrant colors, as in most Impressionist landscape paintings.
Chase also became a member of a group known as The Tilers or the Tile Club, an informal group of New York artists. They intended to be a source of comradery and bringing up debates on art-related subjects. Initially, the group gathered to paint tiles - hence the name - embodying one's aesthetic interest through a decorative activity. However, the original purpose of the group was eventually supplanted in favor of other artistic activities.
They also engaged in summer outings to paint and sketch outdoors. An exclusive and relatively secretive group, the Tile Club was limited to twelve members. At one time or another, the group's members included distinguished artists such as Edwin Austin Abbey, Winslow Homer, John Twachtman, Elihu Vedder, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
Chase, as well as a painter, was highly regarded as a teacher. At first, he lectured only private pupils, such as Dora Wheeler, who was his first student and would become a distinguished artist and Chase's lifelong friend. In 1891, he opened the Long Island Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art in New York, where he taught for eleven years.
The artist opened the Chase School of Art in 1896, which became the New York School of Art two years later, working as an instructor until 1907. Much like in New York parks, the artist found in Shinnecock the opportunities and scenery to explore his inspiration and create a visual dialogue with the French Impressionists he much admired.
During this period, the American Impressionist created his piece Peonies, a beautiful composition with a striking contrast between white and red, with elements of Japonism. Although he became a successful Impressionist, Chase never abandoned traditional references and methods, as he was also highly regarded as a still-life and portrait painter, rendering several distinguished figures of society.
The American master also lectured at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Art Students League, and the Brooklyn Art. Along with his rival instructor Robert Henri, Chase consolidated his name as one of the most influential teachers of American artists of the 1900s.
His renown extended in the USA as well as abroad, winning many honors. He became a member of the National Academy of Design, and president of the Society of American Artists, from 1885 to 1895, as well as becoming a member of the distinguished group Ten American Painters after John Henry Twachtman passed away.
Chase's creativity and work would decline in his later years, as Modern art was taking place in America, but he continued to teach and paint through the 1910s. During this time, Chase taught many up and coming artists. Among his alumni were artists such as Arthur Hill Gilbert, Wilhelmina Weber Furlong, and Edward Hopper.
Chase died in his home in New York City on October 25, 1916; his grave is located at the Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn.
William Merritt Chase consolidated his name as one of the most distinguished artists of his time. His inspiration from both past and contemporary methods and artists, especially the Impressionists, enabled Chase to create distinctive representations of his time and place. His name is still regarded as an esteemed elder of American art and can be seen in most major American museums.
"You must try to match your colors as nearly as you can to those you see before you, and you must study the effects of light and shade on nature's own hues and tints."
"I don't believe in making pencil sketches and then painting landscapes in your studio. You must be right under the sky."
"Do not try to paint the grandiose thing. Paint the commonplace so that it will be distinguished."
" [...] diversity is, in action, the sometimes painful awareness that other people, other races, other voices, other habits of mind have as much integrity of being, as much claim on the world as you do [...] And I urge you, amid all the differences present to the eye and mind, to reach out to create the bond that [...] will protect us all. We are all meant to be here together."
- William Merritt Chase